Shema: the oneness of the Creator

Perhaps the most fundamental and pervading principle in the Torah — the core of Jewish faith — is the idea of internalizing God’s unparalleled unity.
We have a mitzvah to declare this theme twice a day in the famous Shema — “the Lord is One.” And the most frequently recited prayer, Aleinu, concludes with the prophetic verse “on that day shall the Lord be one, and His name one.” (Zechariah 14:9)
While oneness is normally associated with simplicity, there are nuances in this contemplation. The most literal recognition is numerical, like “the one and only” deity. A deeper layer of unity connotes unifying seemingly separate parts. This quality of oneness is expressed by the Hebrew term echad and involves our ability to detect the underlying oneness within the multiplicity, the divine harmony within the universe.
From this perspective, there is room for differences and distinctions between creations, as beings have an identity of their own, albeit subsumed in the overriding unity of their single Creator. A counterpoint, conveyed by the Hebrew word “yachid,” highlights an absolute unity, a sublime and inherently indivisible Creator (and, as Maimonides clarifies, who is neither non-corporeal nor affected by any physical occurrences).
The ultimate stage in this oneness relates to God’s transcendence yet omnipresence — to the point that there is “no other existent outside God.”

Joining two names

Two primary verses related in this week’s Torah portion communicate the importance of recognizing God’s unity by joining two names.
The first verse (Deuteronomy 4:35) states: “You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord (Havayah), He is God (Elokim); there is none else besides Him.” Shortly afterwards (4:39), Moshe reiterates: “And you shall know this day and take into your heart, that the Lord (Havayah) He is God (Elokim) in heaven above, and upon the earth below; there is none else.”
While the general messages of the verses are the same, there are subtle variations in the language. The most general difference is that the first verse is stated simply; the second breaks up the recognition into categories.
One reason for this change is that the first verse, recited every Shabbat morning as the Torah is taken from the ark, refers to the time of Mount Sinai, when the Jewish people were “shown” a potent vision of the all-encompassing unity throughout creation. It was a view from above, as if from God’s perspective, with no distinctions between heaven, earth or down below — which are equally insignificant relative to the infinite.
Though the second verse relates the same conclusion, unlike the previous verse, the Jewish people are not being shown a vision. Rather, there is an instruction — “you shall know” — that operates from a bottom-up perspective within our world. This conception entails human struggle to internalize the inherent oneness behind a visible plurality. To this end, each detail in the grand vision requires a separate recognition to link it to the source.

One God, two titles

Looking at the verses in this week’s Torah portion, one may wonder: What is the instruction to join these two names for God telling us? If the goal is to communicate unity, why not use one title throughout the Torah?
“Havayah,” spelled with the four Hebrew letters — yud, hei, vav, hei — appears exactly 1820 times throughout the five books. We refer to it as the “essential Name.” It may only be pronounced in the Holy Temple and its correct pronunciation is no longer known today. The name “Elokim,” on the other hand, is the first reference in the opening line of the Torah — “In the beginning, Elokim created heaven and earth.”
A name, in general, is only a word used by people to refer to something or someone. Divine names describe specific manifestations or attributes. In general, the name Havayah connotes limitless revelation or kindness; Elokim enacts judicious restraint. In a mystical context, the former represents God’s infinite ability to reveal, while the latter is the process of concealing and limiting the expansive divine energy (as reflected in Psalms 84:12: “a sun and a shield is Havayah and Elokim”). But these two opposite features stem from the same essence, used in the system of creation.
Similarly, Havayah, the boundless quality of the Creator, is the source for all miraculous events that override natural laws; Elokim, on the other hand, produces and establishes nature (its composition of Hebrew letters even has the same numerical value as “the nature”). The common theme between these characteristics — to restrain, conceal and guide nature — is that by reducing the intensity of the immense “light,” Elokim enables independent existence, resulting in “the natural world” with all its properties, parameters and predictable functions.
Plugging in the attributes conveyed by these titles, we might say that the verse communicates that the same Creator guides everything, whether supernatural or natural events — do not think that God operates outside this world, so to speak, and occasionally intervenes. But in addition to the philosophical and mystical implications, this short yet profound contemplation of two names enables us to reinterpret difficult events.


Living in this world, a soul entering a body, represents a huge descent from its previous state, thrust from a place where divine light shone brightly to a place where everything is hidden, slowly understood through physical lenses, where any inspiration, love and awe achieved will never compare to that state above.
This great fall from grace is to undergo tests, all which come to a person by way of hiding and withholding the flow of divine illumination and holiness (Elokim), presenting all sorts of challenges, so that she may push through them.
All tests, by design, conceal truth; passing a test means you remove the layers of falsehood to uncover the gem. More specifically, as it applies to the moral realm, a scenario is created — an obstacle to following through with a positive action (mitzvah) or refraining from a transgression — that, in the moment, appears equally inviting or worthy.
Looking only at the exterior presentation of any event (considering only the veil of Elokim in the world), it is hard to pass the tests we encounter. Such trials are inherently uncomfortable; they bring stress, difficulties and sometimes suffering. All we see is the garments of nature, the seeming randomness of any occurrence, and our emotions take control. By turning our attention to the source, the deeper intention and guiding influence behind every event (recognizing the expansive kindness of Havayah working in conjunction with Elokim), we gain the strength not only to persevere but to arrive at a higher level of insight.

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